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LeVert heating up just in time for Nets

Finally returning to form as Brooklyn tries to clinch playoff berth

April 2, 2019 JT Torenli
After missing 42 games due to injury earlier this season, Caris LeVert appears primed for a strong playoff run if the Nets can nail down their first postseason berth in four years during the next week. AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez

The playoffs are still a big maybe for the Brooklyn Nets as they enter Wednesday night’s critical tilt against the Toronto Raptors at Downtown’s Barclays Center.

But Caris LeVert, the Nets’ dynamic slasher who missed more than three months of action with a gruesome foot injury earlier this season, is looking more and more like a sure thing.

LeVert played what Brooklyn head coach Kenny Atkinson called his “best game” since returning to the hardwood Monday night, albeit in the Nets’ disappointing 131-121 loss to Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks in front of a sellout crowd of 17,732 on the corners of Atlantic and Flatbush avenues.

“It was his best game. From a confidence level and a physical level, that was the Caris from the beginning of the year,” Atkinson noted after LeVert finished with 24 points on 8-of-15 shooting with a team-high six assists and four rebounds in 30 minutes off the bench against the league-leading Bucks.

LeVert began this year with a flurry, establishing himself as the Nets’ go-to guy in crunch time while emerging as an early season favorite for an All-Star bid.

After he crumpled down in pain in Minnesota on Nov. 12 with what originally looked like a season-ending injury, he had to watch as D’Angelo Russell assumed what most thought would be LeVert’s role during this turnaround campaign in Brooklyn.

Russell blossomed into an All-Star while LeVert slowly worked his way back into game shape, sitting out 42 games before returning to the Brooklyn bench on Feb. 8. He averaged just 8.9 points per contest for the remainder of the month, nearly 10 points fewer than he was netting prior to the injury.

In March, LeVert put up 10.9 points per contest and was still playing third- or even fourth-fiddle behind Russell, Spencer Dinwiddie and Joe Harris.

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But over his last four games, LeVert is averaging just over 18 points, and on Monday he flashed the all-around game that had many touting him as the Nets’ best player back in November.

“I loved how athletic he looked and how fast he looked,” Atkinson gushed. “We stuck with him. He performed at a high level, and that bodes well for us going forward.”

LeVert may be primed for a breakout performance in the postseason, if, of course, Brooklyn actually earns its first playoff berth since 2015.

Following Monday night’s defeat, the Nets (39-39) remained a half-game back of Detroit for the Eastern Conference’s No. 6 seed.

They also found themselves just a half-game in front of eighth-place Miami and only one game ahead of Orlando, the first team on the outside looking in at the playoff picture.

With Toronto (55-23), Milwaukee (58-20), Indiana (46-32) and Miami (38-39) remaining on the regular-season schedule, the Nets need LeVert to resume his renaissance if they hope to complete this surprising campaign with the first playoff series at Barclays since they lost a first-round matchup with Atlanta four years ago.

“Caris is a great talent,” said Nets veteran forward DeMarre Carroll. “He’s one of our key cogs too. You can put him right in there with Spence and (Russell). We’re so deep I think we’re giving him time to get back and I think soon as the playoffs, [if] we make it to the playoffs, that’s going to be his biggest time to shine.”

The 24-year-old LeVert, who is hoping to make his first postseason appearance in his third season here with the Nets, is taking his comeback, as well as the Nets’ playoff push, in stride.

After all, many thought he’d never see the hardwood again this season following his ugly fall in Minnesota nearly five months ago.

“You can’t place pressure on yourself. These games are fun,” LeVert insisted.

“It’s what we worked for all year. It’s what we worked for all summer, for these moments right here. [It’s] super fun for us, especially because we control our own destiny at this point.”

Kenny Atkinson has the Nets within a few wins of clinching of a playoff berth after going a combined 41-123 over the previous two seasons. According to an ESPN report Tuesday morning, Atkinson and his coaching staff could soon receive a contract extension to stay here in Brooklyn. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
Kenny Atkinson has the Nets within a few wins of clinching a playoff berth after going a combined 41-123 over the previous two seasons. According to an ESPN report Tuesday morning, Atkinson and his coaching staff could soon receive a contract extension to stay here in Brooklyn. AP Photo/Mary Altaffer

Nothing But Net: ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported Tuesday morning that the Nets and Atkinson, along with the rest of his coaching staff, were nearing completion on a contract extension. Atkinson, a candidate for NBA Coach of the Year honors, struggled through a brutal 41-123 start to his career on the bench during his first two seasons here. But buoyed by Brooklyn’s rise into playoff contention following an 8-18 start to the campaign, Atkinson and his coaches will soon be rewarded with some security going forward. “I would love for Kenny to be Coach of the Year,” Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer, whom Atkinson worked under as an assistant in Atlanta for years, said prior to Monday’s game. “I think he’s very deserving, and what he’s done here the two or three years he’s been (here), the culture, the way they compete, the way they play both ends of the floor. He’s incredibly deserving.”

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